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Wearables With Style?

Designers are trying to merge tech and fashion. We took some products on a test run, and the result wasn’t pretty.

Wearables With Style?
[Photo: Mauricio Alejo]

The brooding male models peering out from wall-to-wall picture frames during a press event at Ralph Lauren’s slick Manhattan headquarters seem to be scowling at my off-brand attire as I self-consciously sip a blueberry smoothie from a wineglass. My dress is a slightly out-of-season shade of pumpkin, but that’s not the problem. The real issue is my odd assemblage of accessories. On my right hand is a bold black-and-gold ring. My left wrist glints with a shiny plastic medallion clipped to a leather band, and on top of that I wear what looks like a gold mini macaron on a black-rubber bracelet. A bulging metal pendant dangles clumsily from my neck. Combined with the orange dress, all of these black accessories make me look like a second-grade teacher on Halloween.

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“What is this?” asks a well-groomed PR person, pointing to the gold bracelet. And so I launch into what has become, over the past couple of days, a familiar tour of my weird jewelry, all of which is some form of supposedly fashionable wearable technology. I have been sporting this jumble of sensors in an attempt to live a vision that tech startups, Kickstarter projects, and big brands all share: wearable technology that blends into daily life without screaming, “I’m tracking my steps!”

Wearables like the Jawbone Up and Fitbit have attracted a ton of attention over the past few years, but so far they haven’t gotten a lot of traction with regular consumers. About a third of the people who did buy those devices stopped using them after six months. The latest strategy of some wearables designers is to make their devices less ­techy and more of a general lifestyle product–to create smart clothes and accessories that look desirable and can sit right next to “dumb” versions in department stores.

That concept is the reason I’m at this event, which is showcasing Ralph Lauren’s own attempt to integrate fashion and tech. A few minutes after I explain my ensemble to the publicist, I’m ushered in to see a tight black shirt that works with an app to show wearers their heart rate, breathing, and activity. “Eventually it will just be part of your outfit,” David Lauren, Ralph Lauren’s son and the brand’s head of advertising and marketing operations, tells me later. “You won’t even think about it.”

When I began hunting for stylish wearables, I figured tracking down enough products to turn me into a buzzing, connected lab for the genre would be easy. After all, last year investors put an estimated $458 million into wearable devices, and I did find no shortage of product renderings and presale splash pages for devices with style. But very few seemed to exist in a purchasable form. Rings made by a startup called Ringly, which connect to your phone and vibrate when you receive a notification, will not be available until winter. The French consumer-tech company Withings introduced a much-praised fitness tracker disguised within a sleek Swiss watch, but it hasn’t yet shipped. I also had to wait to buy Tory Burch‘s Fitbit-encasing jewelry and Rebecca Minkoff‘s line of smart accessories (both of which were due out this fall).

As I began the experiment, all I could get my hands on were a $25 3-D–printed ring called the Sesame, which doubles as a pass for the Boston subway and has been praised as “stylish” and “the ultimate accessory for fashionistas”; the Netatmo June, a $99 UV sensor that looks like a small chip of disco ball and is supposed to monitor my sun exposure; a $100 sensor, the Misfit Shine, that measures physical activity throughout the day and can be worn as a clasp or necklace; and, finally, the Guardian Angel, a pendant with a button that triggers a fake call on your phone–to help get you out of, say, a bad date. All in all, I added four pieces of jewelry and three connected apps to my daily clothing ensemble.

During my 10-day test run, most reactions to my sudden overabundance of accessories are polite. Others are brutally honest: After I explain the Guardian Angel to a colleague, he jokes, “If you wear that on a first date, you might not be the one who wants to leave.” Ouch. “A lot of [wearable-tech devices] are ugly,” says ­Ramon Llamas, a research manager with International Data Corp.’s mobile-phones team. “Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s call something ugly when we know it is.”

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But I’m not convinced my devices are actually that unattractive. A better way to put it would be to say that, while passable, the connected jewelry is not quite me. And given the limited selection, it’s impossible to find options that fit my personal sense of style.

Part of the problem is that designing stylish wearables involves a tug-of-war between two industries with very different perspectives. Fashion survives on personal choice and self-­expression. Gadget companies aim instead for the one ­supergadget–the smartphone, the laptop–that appeals to as many people as possible. Definitions of success in the technology and fashion worlds are completely different. For instance, when Intel and Opening Ceremony teamed up to design a bracelet called the MICA (My Intelligent Communication Accessory, which wasn’t yet available during my experiment), Opening Ceremony wanted a metal bracelet that felt luxurious; Intel’s engineers knew an all-metal band would interfere with the device’s tech components. Intel initially designed a square bracelet; Opening Ceremony nudged toward an oval. It took frequent conference calls to arrive at a design that satisfied both sides. The result of this collaboration is a fairly good-looking product that disguises a screen. If the MICA were more fashionable, it would be less functional. If it were more functional, it would be less fashionable. It’s an economy of trade-offs.

Maybe that’s why so many of these devices prove to be about as useful as they are ­beautiful–which is to say, not very. While living with my accessories, my life doesn’t really change. The Netatmo June doesn’t have much impact on my sun exposure, since most of the time I forget to open the app. With the Guardian Angel, I don’t come across any situations where it would be less awkward to summon a fake call than to simply walk away. Though I never make it to Boston to use the Sesame as a subway pass, I’ve spent a lot of time–most of it while ­digging through my purse for a MetroCard–­contemplating how ­convenient it would be if it worked in New York. Enough to justify wearing the ring every day, though? Probably not.

But the biggest problems, I come to realize, are more fundamental. I’m wearing a collection of sensors that each do one thing, and they don’t work together. The issue with wearables isn’t just that many are nerdy and unattractive. It’s that the sensors aren’t necessarily useful. No matter how stylish they get, why wear them?

In order to successfully integrate, fashion and technology need to work together in a natural way from the beginning. What I want most aren’t prettier accessories, but rather sensors that blend seamlessly into my clothes without making me look like Inspector Gadget. And I want them to all work with each other in a single system, using one app. At the moment, however, that’s just fantasy.

I stop wearing most of these devices as soon as my experiment is over. I do stick with the Shine, though. It uses a watch battery, so I don’t need to remember to charge it, and I like that I can tap it to see progress toward my “steps goal” without looking at my phone. It’s genuinely useful, and it looks okay with most of my wardrobe. Then one morning when I go to put it on, I realize that it clashes with a silver bracelet I also want to wear, so I leave it at home. Weeks later, it’s still sitting there on my nightstand–right next to my dusty, long-abandoned Jawbone Up.

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.

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